By The Denver North Star Staff
Denver city officials recently announced they will make changes to how they oversee and track responses to unauthorized encampments following the results of a city audit.
The audit report and its recommendations released on May 1 center on a need to refine and clarify policies, procedures and data-tracking related to Denver’s encampment response efforts to ensure the city remains compliant with legal requirements and treats people experiencing homelessness equitably.
“Chronic unsheltered homelessness is the most complex issue any city will manage, and we appreciate the audit team, over the course of many months, taking a hard look at how our city is approaching the challenge of encampments,” Mayor Michael B. Hancock said. “More than a housing crisis, it’s a situation made more complicated amid a nationwide drug crisis, mental health crisis and continued fallout from the pandemic on our most vulnerable residents and communities.”
The city’s encampment response connects people experiencing homelessness to resources while addressing areas that are deteriorating with increasing amounts of trash, public health and safety hazards and items encumbering and blocking access to the public right of way.
The city stated it is important work that helps to improve public health and safety conditions, including ensuring that access to public sidewalks, pathways and roadways remains clear and safe. Denver has already implemented many of the recommendations in the audit report. The creation of the Unauthorized Encampment Response Program in the summer of 2022 was intended to centralize and standardize the city’s response to encampments.
Before that, many city agencies had been working in coordination informally to keep people living outdoors safe and healthy while also keeping public spaces clean and connecting people with services. The audit reviewed three and a half years prior to the implementation of the formal Encampment Response Program.
The goal of the citywide program is to manage the city’s policies, procedures and data related to encampment response efforts, which inherently addresses many of the audit’s findings.
In addition to agreeing to implement the audit recommendations, which focus largely on establishing and documenting policies and procedures and gathering more data to report comprehensively on its encampment response, the city has:
• Budgeted around $250 million for programs and capital projects this year to reduce homelessness and increase housing. This is a far more significant investment than the cost of encampment cleanups, estimated by the audit report at $4 million a year, with outreach the most significant portion of expenses at 60%.
• Housed nearly 15,000 previously unhoused residents and invested in 9,000 affordable housing units over the past 12 years.
• Innovated new programs such as Social Impact Bonds to create supportive housing with services for those experiencing homelessness.
• Expanded shelter operations so many facilities now function 24/7 all year long.
• Deployed new solutions like tiny home villages and safe outdoor spaces.
• Prepared to implement in the coming months best practices learned from other cities like Los Angeles, Houston and Seattle to use an “encampment resolution” approach that connects entire camps to housing opportunities, directly from the street.